Laura Frantz’ characteristically immaculate research choices uncharacteristically falter in Tidewater Bride, about a bright matchmaker and a land baron with a secret.
Selah Hopewell stands among the recently-arrived-from-England phalanx of tobacco brides who have arrived to marry the single men of Jamestown and thinks upon her role in matchmaking the parties together. The women will be churched, and then lodged with married couples until they are courted and wooed by the Virginian men they encounter, and it falls to Selah to ensure they fit into the community and ensure they are courted in a proper way. She is very eligible herself, but does not court – no man has meant more to her than a passing fancy, and she busies herself around the house. Soon the fascinating Cecily moves into her home, and Selah and her family begin to shepherd the girl to matrimony with Phineas Wentz, a local merchant.
Scottish transplant Alexander – Xander – Renick once loved too – Matachanna, a princess of the Powhatan (see below) whom he married but lost during a trip to England. Now he has the land deeded to him upon his wife’s death, making him the foremost tobacco lord in all Virginia, land upon which he has built Rose-n-Vale, where he’s raising his son by Matachanna, Oceanus, but has no wife. Beautiful and stalwart Selah seems just the ticket, and he begins to court her.
Selah soon must deal with two burdens – her father’s illness and the unwanted attentions of a man named Hellion Laurent, whose cruelties are well known and who seeks to court her. Accepting Xander’s suit seems all the more reasonable a prospect – but Xander holds close to his heart a secret about Matachanna which continues to haunt him to this day. Can Selah accept the truth?
Tidewater Bride is beautifully written, but the choices the author makes and some of its details drag it down.
I liked the business of what happens in the Hopewell family – Selah’s relationships with her thoughtful father, her quiet, ladylike mother, and her boisterous sailor brother Shay who is often away from Virginia and whom they all miss. Selah herself is steadfast, smart and good. Her relationship with Xander is frank and friendly and kind and flirtatious – easy to root for, and Laurent is properly evil and racist, and by the middle of the book, you’re really hoping for his painful, bloody death.
But there’s one big problem with this novel. Frantz based two characters –Matachanna and Renick – on Pocahontas and John Rolfe. The trouble with this is that Mattachanna (with two t’s in real life) was the name of Pocahontas’ real-life sister, who was churched under the name Rachel and died in Virginia at the age of forty-six. Other details from Pocahontas’ life are only lightly fictionalized here, from the rumors as to why she died so young and aboard shi,p to her meeting with British royalty. Matachanna and Pocahontas even come from the Powhatan tribe. Basing something loosely on a real story is one thing, but I found the too-closely related names and too-close-to-Pocahontas’ life portion of the tale incredibly distracting. A person who knows less about Pocahontas’ true story might not be dismayed, but for me – knowing what I know about them all – it was an issue. Tossing a rape plot into the mix made the book even harder for me to enjoy. My feelings about the addition of Watseka, Matachanna’s sister, a native woman who becomes something of a plot device in the battle against Laurent are much more mixed, as Frantz fails to make her a well-rounded character.
Frantz’ strong writing is what helps bolster the book. Faith perfumes the actions of all of her characters, who call upon God for help, pray, and praise His name, but, as always, she does not rely upon preaching to make her point about the importance of religion in her characters’ lives.
Frantz remains one of the strongest inspirational authors I’ve ever read, but while Tidewater Bride edges close to a recommendation, I just misses out on one from me.